Wayfinding: An ancient way of navigation

This was couple of weeks ago when me and my son was watching “Moana” (the Disney animated movie) which talked about folklore of Te-fiti (the mother island) , Te-ka (the lava monster) and Maui (the heart stealer) and of course Moana (the savior). Disney has done an amazing job in creating Moana’s world so beautifully. I would recommend this movie not only for kids but to all adults out there.

Keeping the movie aside, it did talk about an ancient method of navigation called “Wayfinding”. Wayfinding involves navigating on the open ocean without sextant, compass, clock, radio reports, or satellites reports. The wayfinder depends on observations of the stars, the sun, the ocean swells, and other signs of nature for clues to direction and location of a vessel at sea. Wayfinding was used for voyaging for thousands of years by Polynesian and Micronesian cultures before the invention of European navigational instruments. Over time they discovered, settled, and travelled amongst a vast number of widely scattered islands, including Aotearoa New Zealand, using techniques handed down through generations. It was an impressive achievement in the times when tools of survival were made out of stones.

Over the past decade, Spiller has studied what leadership lessons can be learned from the wayfinding tradition of Polynesian navigators. Her conclusion: it offers a powerful approach to leading people in an uncertain, complex and constantly changing world.  “Wayfinding leaders are able to more effectively release the potential in others and in situations. Wayfinding deepens discernment about what is really going on and enables leaders to be more responsive to subtle shifts and nuances.”

Few insights from wayfinding techniques which can be inculcated into today’s leadership lessons:

  • Step into your Rangatira (Polynesian word meaning assuming leaderliness) Space

Rangatira is a Polynesian concept where one assumes chieftain or leader position particularly responsible for weaving everyone (i.e. team members) in one fabric to achieve a particular goal. In sea-faring terms, it was sheer survival, finding resources and discovery of islands. However, in modern day it can be translated as strengthening the organization (be it personal or professional) using relational leadership and trying to avoid hierarchical system. Dr. Spiller in her research has quoted the following for the concept of Rangatira.

“A Rangatira leader is someone who helps weave people together as a group without a command and control hierarchical system.

“This sets the scene of standing with others, not over them. Success is succession; it’s about strengthening the whole organisation through relational leadership and helping others step into their own leadership,” she says.

“It’s about finding space to pause, observe and make effective decisions within times of chaos,”


  • Call the island to you

Calling an island while on a seafaring journey can be used as a metaphor for other parts of our lives.

‘The island’ can refer to a personal or professional goal that a person wants to create or letting go of something that’s not serving them.

“A lot of people I meet in organizations are deeply exhausted and all these KPIs and performance goals have become straitjackets. When they reach these goals, they often feel hollow.

“Leaders can get so caught up in managing and fixing things that they don’t pause and read the other signs around them and use their intuition.

“We need to use all our intelligence, not just rational logic, but also our creative intelligence, instinct and intuition.”

“This means letting go of the ego and our default habits, assumptions and judgements. When we start living like a wayfinder, life becomes quite rich,”


  • Embrace the unknown

“If you were stuck at sea or in the midst of a change in your personal life or work, a big shift can be unsettling.

“But on that journey of discovery, being really uncomfortable is part of the journey and gives us an opportunity to see things differently.

“We want smooth sailing but very rarely is life smooth.   Life throws so many obstacles and problems in front of us leading to course correct ourselves to reach the destination set out in the beginning.

“When conditions get tough for Wayfinders, they become relaxed and trust in each other.

“But in so many organisations these days if people are unhappy, they hide behind cynical despair or just leave their job,” she says.


These were few nuggets of information which can be easily drawn from these sea-faring and wayfinding experts. More details of this can be found in the following TEDx video. This video for some reasons was an eye-opener for me.

Hope you find it useful too.

Thanks & Regards,

Nihit M



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Who is Nihit Mohan?

Nihit Mohan is a banker, author and a TEDx speaker. He was born & raised in the cradle of cultural diversity of India, & currently resides in Singapore. He did his education from seven schools spread across multiple cities & cultures. He is an engineer by education & has made a successful career in the financial services industry. He hails from a family of engineers, bureaucrats & academicians.

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